What’s Stephen King’s legacy?
Stephen King’s legacy as a bestselling horror/psychological fiction writer is attributed to his writing style. Because readers can identify with many of King’s three-dimensional, dynamic characters, his stories captivate and engage his loyal fans and first-time readers. For example, the protagonist in “Carrie” is a high school girl ostracized because she is different. Nearly everyone, at some point in their adolescence, has experienced the sting of rejection by their peers or the profound, psychic pain of suffering repeated emotional abuse.
Carrie was Stephen King’s first novel, published in 1974, with a print-run of 30,000 copies. King favored an epistolary form to produce realism in the novel by using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books.
Stephen King also creates identifiable characters that elicit immediate sympathy from readers due to inherently flawed but human traits. Beverly Marsh, the poor girl in IT, was abused by her father; Nick Andros was the deaf-mute in The Stand; and Wendy Torrance was Jack’s long-suffering wife in The Shining.
The horror novel IT was published in 1986. The story tracks the escapades of seven children as an eponymous being (in the form of a clown) terrorizes them. King tells the story through narratives shifting between two time periods. It is mostly told in the third-person all-seeing mode. IT addresses King’s most beloved themes: the omnipotence of memory, childhood suffering, and the monstrousness prowling behind a disguise of classic sectarian values.
King’s Use of Metaphors and Symbols
King frequently embellishes his themes by using a metaphor, a literary device that compares two seemingly independent subjects without directly implying the association. Specifically, King’s use of the “extended metaphor,” or one that encompasses an entire body of work, is evident in novels like The Green Mile, in which John Coffey can heal the sick but dies in the end because of men committing atrocious “sins.” One of the protagonists in The Green Mile, a large, African-American man named Coffey, seems to mirror the life of Jesus Christ, although the story is set in the death row area of a Depression-era prison.
King’s The Green Mile is a serial novel published in 1996. The book exemplifies the genre of “magical realism,” in which King introduces his readers to supernatural elements taking place in an ordinary, realistic environment.
Other metaphors used by King that effectively intensify the themes of his stories include the Randall Flagg/Satan association in The Stand; the terrifying clown called IT, which may represent our childhood and adult fears and how we easily allow them to rule our lives; and the Needful Things store in the novel of the same name, a metaphor that reveals the possible consequences of desiring what are essentially objects without any real value.
In his novel Christine, King has stated in interviews that Arnie’s car symbolizes “the end of innocence,” or that time when getting your first car means you are no longer a carefree, innocent child but a culpable adult with responsibilities.
King’s horror novel Christine was published in 1983. King tells the story of a classic car controlled by ghostly powers.
In The Shawshank Redemption, the posters of Rita Hayworth and other glamour girls symbolize every inmate’s powerful desire to once again live a normal life outside the prison. This symbolism is further reinforced by the holes in the concrete walls which the posters conceal from the prison guards.
The Shawshank Redemption is the title of the 1994 movie adapted from King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, appearing in his 527-page novel, Different Seasons (published in 1982).
Conflict and Suspense
All memorable literature contains conflict, foreshadowing and suspense. King is the master at integrating these three literary devices into all of his novels and short stories by creating dynamic characters that not only react to events occurring around them, but who also experience some kind of pronounced, psychological change due to either adapting or relenting to the compelling event.
Even when some of King’s characters fail to survive the conflict, he still manages to make us feel sorry for them in a weirdly satisfying way. At the end of The Shining, when Jack Torrance attempts to regain his real self and tells his son Danny to ” … run away … remember how much I love you,” we understand that, although Jack is now a crazed murderer possessed by an evil spirit, the “father” side of his soul can never be taken away from him.
King’s horror novel The Shining was published in 1977 and became his first hardback bestseller. The Shining is greatly influenced by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (a ghost story), Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (a gothic horror story) and Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (a haunted house story).
By studying the writing style of Stephen King, both professional and non-professional writers can learn a great deal about writing extraordinarily popular literature. See my collection of Stephen King Writing Quotes.
Image by the USO, via Flickr Commons
In one of my favorite Stephen King interviews, for The Atlantic, he talks at length about the vital importance of a good opening line. “There are all sorts of theories,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King’s discussion of opening lines is compelling because of his dual focus as an avid reader and a prodigious writer of fiction---he doesn’t lose sight of either perspective:
We’ve talked so much about the reader, but you can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.
This is excellent advice. As you orient your reader, so you orient yourself, pointing your work in the direction it needs to go. Now King admits that he doesn’t think much about the opening line as he writes, in a first draft, at least. That perfectly crafted and inviting opening sentence is something that emerges in revision, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work happens.
Revision in the second draft, “one of them, anyway,” may “necessitate some big changes” says King in his 2000 memoir slash writing guide On Writing. And yet, it is an essential process, and one that “hardly ever fails.” Below, we bring you King’s top twenty rules from On Writing. About half of these relate directly to revision. The other half cover the intangibles---attitude, discipline, work habits. A number of these suggestions reliably pop up in every writer’s guide. But quite a few of them were born of Stephen King’s many decades of trial and error and---writes the Barnes & Noble book blog---“over 350 million copies” sold, “like them or loathe them."
1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."
2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”
4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”
5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”
6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway."
9. Turn off the TV. “TV---while working out or anywhere else---really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book---even a long one---should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”
12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
13. Eliminate distraction. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”
14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”
15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”
16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”
17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”
18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”
19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness